I’m sitting at Chennai airport waiting for my flight and I figured this was as good a time as any to reflect on my first visit to the sub-continent. India is a brutal lesson in the inequities that exist in our world. I saw the bill for my one week hotel stay and compared it to some average salary statistics that I saw in the newspaper this morning – my one week stay cost roughly equivalent to what a taxi driver earns in nine months. Bear in mind that, while a great hotel, it wasn’t the top of the market, and that taxi driver is doing OK compared to a significant proportion of his one billion countrymen.
Of course one answer would have been to stay at a cheaper hotel and spread my Western affluence elsewhere? Another was found by my choosing regular buses over air conditioned ones (or taxis for that matter) or of walking through a monsoon downpour rather than take the easy route and jump in a cab – but who am I kidding – at the end of my (very) wet walk I had a nice hot shower and clean dry clothes, and the end of my trip in the sweltering bus I had a nice cool air conditioned room to enjoy. So yeah – as someone far less wise (bear with me – you’ll agree once you realise who I’m talking about – Dubya) than myself said; "If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem".
I went out from the hotel this evening before coming to the airport and watched the Diwali fireworks – while I did so an elderly woman shuffled past in the middle of the road carrying her shopping. It was one of those little things that make you catch your breath and wonder about the bigger questions in life. I couldn’t help but think of my Grandmothers in Eastern Europe a few decades ago – there but for the grace of God go I and all that. I was sorely tempted to pay a rickshaw driver to take her to wherever she needed to go – but I didn’t – there are different norms going on here and my (Western) perception is much more likely to be way off the mark than correct.
So what’s the answer? Well I’m no economist, and considering the economists themselves haven’t solved the issue we’re probably best not looking to them for answers. Maybe we should look to initiatives like those employed by Sridhar Vembu, owner of AdventNet the company for whom I came to India. Sridhar runs a university as part of his operation, teaching capable and motivated kids, without the financial resources to study themselves. Many of the developers he turns out end up working for AdventNet/Zoho and greatly bettering their lives in the process – from small acorns and all that.
Of course the ascension to middle class by these kids brings it’s own problems – Chennai, and I’d wager most of India, is densely populated, massively polluted and highly consumptive. More money for more people will only exacerbate this problem – you can’t breathe the air now – what will another few hundred million cars on the road do?
So I’ll head back to New Zealand and read in the paper those exhorting us to reduce, reuse and recycle – all lofty aims for sure – but it’s hard to see how anything that any of us in the West can do will really improve things in the world until the billions of people living in squalor and poverty rise out and enjoy some of the quality of life that we, in the Western world, take for granted. And until all of us, together, work out a way to live without turning this planet into a massive toxic dump.
So I’ll go back to New Zealand – to my well-fed, comfortable and resource heavy life. Meanwhile that little old lady will keep shuffling down the road, carrying her shopping, breathing the foul air and wondering where her next meal will come from.
Or maybe that’s just my Western take on it???